Sims wants to harness power of cow manure; county executive wants to use cowpies to produce electricity


by Mike Archbold
King County Journal Reporter

ENUMCLAW, WA -- King County Executive Ron Sims touted manure power on Wednesday as a way to make dairy farming environmentally friendly and less costly.

Standing in the Livestock Building on the opening day of the King County Fair with Guernsey, Jersey and Holstein cows laying contentedly behind him, Sims unveiled an estimated $7.59 million project to turn cow manure into electricity.

The plan, he said, is to collect manure from dairy farmers, place it in a digester and then collect the methane gas, which will be burned to generate electricity. The electricity would then be sold to companies like Puget Sound Energy. The by-products from the process would return to farm pastures.

``We are going to make this happen,'' he said, because it makes economic sense. A study indicates that cow manure is a valuable resource and the project could be an attractive business venture.

Turning methane gas into power isn't new to the county. ing County announced earlier this month that it will work with a private company to turn methane gas generated by solid waste at the Cedar Hills Landfill into energy. Energy Developments Inc. of Houston will build, own and operate a power plant at the landfill.

The methane gas extracted and burned there will generate power for an estimated 16,000 homes.

The county is also involved in utilizing methane gas at its wastewater treatment plants.

A $25,000 feasibility study completed last month concluded that the county's cow manure can be tapped for methane at a cost that will pay back the initial investment in about eight years. The plant could bet about $1.16 million in annual net revenue.

The next step, Sims said, is to figure out who will build and operate the facility, arrange the financing, build it and begin trucking in cow manure.

If everything works out, according to Elissa M. Benson, the project manager with the county's Department of Natural Resources and Parks, the plant could be up and running in two years.

There is no shortage of manure. There are more than 12,000 dairy cows in King County, each producing about 100 pounds of methane-producing manure a day.

That bovine flatulence could generate enough electricity to power 800 homes, Sims said.

Dealing with manure has become an expensive operating cost for dairy farmers, who must collect it and store it in sewage lagoons on their farms before spraying it back on their fields. The odor from spraying sewage is ripe; keeping it from entering stream and rivers is difficult and expensive.

Sims said the methane extraction system grew out of the county's ongoing efforts to explore ways with farmers to reduce the cost of dairy farming.

``We have about 15 different farms involved,'' Sims said. ``It's not the smell we are concerned about but how do you lower the cost. We want people to remain in farming, which is important and critical for this county and region.''

The detailed planning will include finding a site for the plant, probably on the Enumclaw Plateau, where most of the county's dairies are located, he said.

King County is working with a variety of private and public agencies on the project. They include the King Conservation District, Bonneville Environmental Foundation, Washington State University Energy Program, Seattle City Light, Puget Sound Energy and a number of dairy farmers.

``With increasing land values that prevent farmers from increasing their land ownership and a need for increased herd sizes, a methane digester would answer many community issues on the Enumclaw Plateau,'' Enumclaw dairy farmer Janet Baker said in a county press release on the project. ``Our issues include manure disposal, odor control and clean water.

``This would provide a new energy source for electricity, reclaimed water for irrigation, a proven compost product for home and commercial gardeners and keep the dairy industry alive on the plateau with milk locally produced. A winner for all.''

The methane extraction technology is cutting edge and is being examined elsewhere in the country. The digester uses microorganisms to break down solids in cow manure to produce methane gas. Manure from 6,000 cows can produce 107 billion BTUs, which when converted to electricity can power about 800 households.

Sims said one possible financing method is that such a digester would earn environmental tax credits for the developer, who could even sell them to generate capital.


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